Witchcraft is difficult to define. At first it was viewed as nonsense, but by the 16th century, it was a solid part of Europe. Both Catholics and Protestants believed in it! While witchcraft can be found in most cultures, it looks very different in other cultures than it did in Europe during the middle ages because the belief that Satan was at the root of it.
In the earliest forms of religion, magic, formulas and spells were very important. When people realized that magic isn’t particularly effective in ordering the world, the idea of surrendering to God’s control became all important. In a lot of ways, however, European witchcraft looked a lot like the earliest forms of religion. (Of course, even today, religion has magical elements. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be religious have superstitions: a lucky shirt for interviews, a special pen for writing something brilliant… What are these but "magical" attempts to control the world around us?)
Witchcraft relies on the belief that magic exists and that there are two opposing forces in the world. The understanding was adopted from the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeism. The sharp split between good and evil is a Western phenomenon. You don’t find it in the east.
Historians disagree on the origins of witchcraft. Some claim it was simply a political ploy or the result of the imagination, but no one knows for sure. What we know about witchcraft comes from hostile sources – those who were in opposition to it at the time.
In the 1920s, Margaret Murray argued that witchcraft was the remains of vegetation rituals from pre-Christian times. Her ideas were dismissed, but are being revisited, today. Carlo Ginzburg has shown conclusively that agrarian cults still existed in rural areas in Europe during the 16th century. Good witches would fight against the evil spirits that threatened to destroy their crops. When Inquisitors came across these people, they identified them as infidels and claimed their practice was devil worship. The peasants would deny these charges, but under intense investigation, they would eventually admit to whatever accusations the inquisitors made.
During the middle ages, magic, religion and science all merged into one another. A religious figure could use highly charged religious language to describe his scientific work, and someone with a belief in magic could describe religion in magical terms. Scientists often used magic in their experiments. It was the process of secularization that finally established firm boundaries.
The Protestant Reformation worked to get rid of magic and superstition in Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation led to the stricter monitoring of practices that were found to be unacceptable. The Scientific Revolution defined the world in numerical terms and embraced Cartesianism. All of these movements led to the demise of alchemy, astrology and hermeticism.
The Protestant Reformation made everyone uncertain. Can you imagine how it would be if for over 1000 years, generation after generation had looked to Catholicism as truth and suddenly, the truth is called into question? The Protestant movement brought it into question, and the Catholic Church responded to by becoming even more strict. Practices that had long been ignored or considered insignificant prior to the Protestant movement became targets of persecution.
There were continuous religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics and the winner of those wars got to impose his particular brand of religion. Religious tolerance was not widely practiced. If there were people you didn’t want fighting against you, accuse them of witchcraft. In Catholic countries, it was Protestants that were accused of witchcraft. In Protestant countries, it was the Catholics.
As many as 80,000 to 100,000 people (mostly elderly women) were killed as witches. Most were from rural areas where the social structure was breaking down. Almost everyone in rural Europe used to eek out a living. Now there was a sharp division between well-to-do peasants (farmers) and those that had been marginalized. Poverty, which had once been viewed as dignified, was now devalued.
In the olden days, a beggar could knock on the door of a home and expect to receive some money or food, but by the late 15th century, this was no longer true. Beggars were often turned away instead of given food. Very often, the beggar would curse at the person who turned them away. If you had been cursed at by a beggar, and shortly thereafter your baby died in childbirth (which happened all the time back then), you could blame it on the beggar and declare him or her (usually an elderly her) "witch".
War and all of the instability in the region led to a surplus of older women. (If you were 40, you were old!) Women were most likely to practice folk medicine and this practice was closely related to the witch craze. Also, with the modern era came the institutionalization for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized: prisons, insane asylums, etc. These institutions led to the repression of social misfits. According to Michel Foucault, the persecution of witchcraft is similar: it was yet another institution for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized.
That people no longer saw poverty as dignified was directly related to the rise of capitalism. The growth of new economic systems in Europe were so fraught with tension that witchcraft became an easy scapegoat. The discovery of the New World and the awareness of new peoples never known before, was also forcing Europeans to rethink their world. People began identifying themselves as separate from "the other".
New, sophisticated methods of persecution and criminal inquiry were now under control of the state. The Inquisition was the most formidable. Public executions and burnings became an essential part of the "theatricality of power": they were reminders of the power of the state and they had extraordinary popular support. One of the reasons for this support was that it allowed a condemned person to re-enter the body politic. Do something bad, profess your sin, die for it, and then you are forgiven.
Jean Delumeau argued that the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern period marked an intense, widespread sense of fear in Western Europe. Changes in religion, economics, politics and the social structure, as well as the birth pangs of modernity created a kind of collective pathology. This fear was most present in the lower classes as well as some of the middle class who perceived the changes as a threat to their well-being. Unsurprisingly, there was an upsurge of bandits, vagrants, scam artists and others that added to the insecurity. A social violence existed that mostly affected the bottom rungs of society.
By persecuting witches, the State created a distraction from the popular discontent. Anger about the wars, the heavy taxation, the crime, etc. was directed away from the failings of the state to Jews, lepers, Muslims, old women, etc. Don’t blame the State, blame the witches. This scapegoating strengthened the state supported institutions and the coercive mechanisms of the nation-state. And as mentioned before, these coercive mechanisms had widespread popular support.
Also mentioned previously, the Western form of witchcraft is very different from what exists in other cultures thanks to the role of Satan. The concept of the devil in Western culture comes from Manichaeism (Persian dualism), not from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the devil has an ambivalent role. In Job, for instance, the devil just does what God asks of him. Beliefs in the devil didn’t develop until early Christianity and the Middle Ages. By the late 15th century, the devil had come to play an enhanced role in the lives of most Europeans and was linked with a wide range of activities.
In the ancient world, when the pastoral lifestyle took over the previous hunter/gatherer lifestyle as well as the earliest agrarian movements, a dramatic change in religious worship occurred. In order to affect change, the pastoral peoples got rid of the fertility goddess cults and replaced them with a male-centered patriarchy. This change was most obvious in Judaism, but can also be seen in Greek mythology. It led to a dramatic shift in the treatment of women.
The two main traditions that Western civilization is founded upon, Judaism and Greek, are seriously misogynistic traditions where women are horribly mistreated. Most of the great classical works show women as evil, weak, and easily deceived, as well as being capable of leading man into temptation. There are some exceptions to these representations, but not many. The reality is that the place of women was inferior to that of men. Western Society was a phallocracy. This was most evident in Athens, the cradle of democracy, which most definitely was not democratic when it came to women.
Early Christianity allowed women some power, but this didn’t last long. By the Middle Ages, even upper class women had only two alternatives: marriage or the monastery. Monastic life allowed women to be at least somewhat independent of men, but the religious hierarchy placed male rule over that of female rule. Women were strictly subordinated to men.
For a brief period in the 12th century, women gained a modicum of power through courtly love. But this was only for upper class women. Lower class women worked endlessly and were often abused. They had few property rights and no political rights whatsoever. Also, the idea of courtly love was condemned by the Church.
The conditions of women worsened considerably during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The number of widowed and single women rose in proportion to the number of men because of the wars. Women living alone at the edge of rural areas, engaging in healing, herbalism and folk medicine became common. Women in the lower classes who had no ties to men became easy targets for persecution. In the absence of Jews, they made ideal scapegoats.
Men got to determine the boundaries of sexual behavior because, as Ruiz puts it, men can’t fake it. If you can’t get it up, it must be a curse. An older sexually active woman is the ultimate transgression. Cursing, blasphemy, behaving lewdly gets women accused of witchcraft. Also, old women had long been associated with the "evil eye". This was a certain look that was considered to be similar to a curse – if an older woman gave you the evil eye, you were cursed. The evil eye became associated with Satan, and women were accused of witchcraft because of it.